Who Brands Whom? the Role of Local Authorities in the Branching of Art Museums

By Vivant, Elsa | The Town Planning Review, January 1, 2011 | Go to article overview

Who Brands Whom? the Role of Local Authorities in the Branching of Art Museums


Vivant, Elsa, The Town Planning Review


Museums around the world are seeing changes in how they fundraise and manage their collections; fundraising efforts increasingly involve the private sector and museums are adopting a more entrepreneurial management approach to growth. To be internationally competitive, one growing trend for museums is to promote themselves as a brand in order to attract more visitors and private-sector funding. The increasingly global recognition of a museum's brand has resulted in the expansion of many major international museums throughout the world though branches and franchises. But who is really driving this growth? Are museums opening branches worldwide as part of a development strategy? Are museums driving this expansion or are they responding to local pressures?

This article will attempt to reveal the role of local authorities in the development of museum branches by comparing the history, project-specific characteristics and impact on urban regeneration of three branches of the Louvre, Tate and Guggenheim museums in three different cities. In fact, creating a cultural flagship is a very commonly used tool in urban regeneration projects and many cities appear to be racing toward being competitive rather than distinct. To this end, many city planners and leaders want to host the branch or franchise of a world-renowned museum because they consider a museum brand to be more meaningful and valuable than another local cultural institution. This article explores whether opening a branch of a famous museum is a winning strategy for these cities and examines to what extent a museum brand can be used as an effective tool for branding a city.

The world of museums is currently facing dramatic changes, largely because in order for museums to achieve their main cultural goals (education, exhibition, protection, conservation) they now also have to deal with issues such as competitiveness, visitor management and fundraising. In addition, museums are increasingly becoming urban amenities, even planning tools, as much as cultural places, and this has led to a new notion of museums as mass-entertainment machines (Van Aalst and Boogaarts, 2002). One recent trend is for successful museums to open branches in other cities. Analysts have most often described this trend as the culmination of global changes in the management of museums (Werner, 2005; Wu, 2002). In this article, we will briefly describe this shift towards a more entrepreneurial style of museum management. We will argue that opening museum branches is often in response to a city's requests. In fact, some of the projects' leaders involved are not museum managers but, rather, local authorities. Attracting a prestigious museum brand is a new tool in planning and urban development that reveals the growing belief in the urban myth that museums are a city's Saviour. This myth is based on a few successful examples and transferred, without discrimination, to other cases. Indeed, the increased practice of using previous development projects as a benchmark for implementing public policies has had the result of diffusing a wide variety of models that are not always applicable.

By comparing several museums (the Tate, Guggenheim and Louvre museums) that have opened branches in three different cities, we will explore the role of local authorities in the development of museums branches. It appears that local authorities are less and less inclined to promote a city's cultural distinctiveness and prefer instead to invite world-class museums to open branches or franchises. They consider the museum's brand more significant than a local cultural institution. But is it a winning strategy for cities to open museum branches? And to what extent is a museum branch an effective tool for branding cities?

From the curator museum to the entrepreneurial museum

Since the 1980s, the creation of a large number of new galleries1 has changed the landscape of museums worldwide. This so-called 'Museum fever' is a symbol of the growth of a leisure society and the commodification and capitalisation of culture. …

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